By Saad Sayeed
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The arrests of 19 ethnic Pashtun activists in Pakistan this week has fuelled fears of a fresh crackdown on the civil rights movement and a call by Amnesty International on Thursday for their immediate release.
The members of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), which was founded a year ago to protest the death of a Pashtun man killed by police in the port city of Karachi, were arrested on Tuesday during protests against police violence.
"Around 18 of our activists are still in custody," PTM leader and member of parliament Ali Wazir told Reuters, adding that one of those detained had been released.
Tuesday's protests followed the death of PTM regional leader Arman Loni in southwestern Baluchistan province which the group blamed on police.
Mohsin Dawar, a member of parliament and founding member of PTM, said police had singled Loni out and beat him to death.
A police spokesman said Loni died of a heart attack after clashes between protesters and police.
Authorities "must immediately and unconditionally release protesters belonging to the peaceful Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement," rights group Amnesty International said in a statement.
"It is shocking that the Pakistani authorities have resorted to such heavy-handed methods even as senior government officials have clearly acknowledged that the PTM has legitimate grievances that must be addressed," Amnesty South Asia researcher Rabia Mehmood said.
PTM blames the military and other state agencies for what it says are forced disappearances resulting in thousands of missing persons' cases, mainly from the Pashtun region bordering Afghanistan.
The group is viewed with deep suspicion by the military which says it undermines Pakistan. The army has said it does not detain individuals without evidence.
The arrest last month of senior PTM leader Alamzeb Mehsud in Karachi drew an outcry on social media. He was charged under anti-terrorism and public order laws, but his supporters say he was arrested for protesting against abuses by the military.
Following a series of nationwide protests last year, hundreds of PTM activists were arrested and detained across the country in a large-scale crackdown against the group.
Dawar and Wazir, founding PTM members, were elected to parliament in July from the Pashtun majority Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan, highlighting the group's growing appeal among Pakistan's 35 million Pashtuns.
(Reporting by Saad Sayeed; editing by Darren Schuettler)